Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

"Outstanding…Moore Triumphs! Publishers Weekly

Mike & Friends Blog

Matt Stoller

Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute

October 25th, 2011 9:59 AM

Can the Power of Occupy Wall Street Make Obama a Populist?

It's been a little over a month since this bolt of political lightning known as Occupy Wall Street jolted through the political establishment. It's time to assess just what Occupy Wall Street has gotten done. That it has accomplished a great deal is beyond dispute. Franklin Foer in the New Republic and John Nichols in the Nation have both noted that Occupy Wall Street profoundly challenged President Obama and the Republicans. But what an odd challenge. A few thousand people camped out in parks around the country? Really?

Yet this challenge has completely changed the dominant theme in Washington. Less than a year ago, JP Morgan's Bill Daley was the glad-handling centrist du jour, praised by everyone from Howard Dean to Bob Reich. The "austerity class," as Ari Berman so nicely put it, was in control of the debate, with the Tea Party waiting in the wings ready to slash and burn. 

Fast forward to October 2011. Obama is increasingly taking on a populist tone and using executive orders to attempt stimulating the economy, with Democrats smacking around Mitt Romney for encouraging foreclosures as a way to clear the market (a policy Obama administration officials like HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan agree with. The centrists are losing, perhaps not power, but certainly the debate. Third Way, the political brain behind this centrist White House and Senate, is one of the few groups warning Democrats away from Occupy Wall Street, but few are listening.

There's a reason; the themes put out by the protesters are overwhelmingly popular. The poll numbers are out. If Occupy Wall Street were a national candidate for president, it would be blowing away every other candidate on the stage, including Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Fifty-four percent of Americans agree with the protesters, versus 44 percent who think President Obama is doing a good job. Seventy-three percent of Americans want prosecutions for Wall Street executives for the crisis. Seventy-nine percent think the gap between rich and poor is too large. Eighty-six percent say Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much power in Washington. Sixty-eight percent think the rich should pay more in taxes. Twenty-five percent of the public considers itself upset, 45 percent is concerned about the country and 25 percent is downright angry.

That these themes are dominating establishment debates now is somewhat bizarre. It's not as if people didn't hate banks in 2008, 2009 or 2010. And when you think about it, camping out in various cities isn't a particularly radical act, in and of itself. Occupy Wall Street can't project political power, at least not in any traditional sense. It can't make decisions about how to relate to the police, or politicians. It is ideologically incoherent. It can't even stop drum circles from drumming at night, because drummers don't recognize the legitimacy of the general assemblies that try to cut deals with the neighborhood. There are increasing reports of medical and safety problems in parks around the country. One person at the protests told me the World War I disease called trenchfoot is making an appearance due to damp conditions. The protests are a ball of raw energy, with one basic message: The 1 percent on Wall Street have taken advantage of the 99 percent of the rest of us.

Yet this message is resonating, deeply. What the occupiers have done, perhaps unwittingly, is force political elites to choose, at least publicly, between their funding stream and their popular legitimacy. Wall Street lobbyists are absolutely furious at Obama for embracing the protests, but protesters aren't particularly enthused to have establishment praise. Barney Frank goes to raise money from Wall Street, while lamenting how the protesters didn't vote in 2010. The occupiers as a group are split on voting; some think participation in politics is essential while others think participation in this system is immoral. One thing that's clear is that occupiers do not see Obama's reelection as a particularly significant goal, at least not now.

This movement has heightened the contradictions of both parties, the Wall Street funding of the Democratic Party and its associated institutions, as well as the faux populism of the Tea Party-infused Republican. The main message of the occupiers is that the government and Wall Street are one tangled corrupt mess screwing everyone else. Centrists, many of whom live in the Democratic Party, at the Fed, in banks, and in law firms and think tanks, are the key linchpin of this system. They make the trains run on time, shuffling between the various institutions of national power. And they have a long history of dancing in between popular legitimacy and corrupt financial elites. An example is the Democratic embrace of Fannie Mae as an institution that broadens access to housing. This company was corrupt to the core, and the people profiting from it have gone on to senior administration positions in the White House -- Tom Donolan in National Security, Rahm Emanuel, Bill Daley, Peter Orszag, etc. These are the people who are centrally implicated by Occupy Wall Street.

Centrists dealing with the occupiers are suffering because they must now choose between their funding stream and their popular legitimacy. Michael Bloomberg, the centrist mayor of New York, is perceived of as weak by his friends, but he is also increasingly unpopular in the city. Rahm Emanuel, Chicago mayor, must now openly arrest the people he used to badmouth and bully while in the White House.

The gravitational pull of the occupiers is remarkable to behold. Tea Partiers are angry at the stolen thunder. Wall Street tycoon Larry Fink (who is on the investor, not the banks side) offered praise for the protests. Liberal Democratic groups like Moveon and Democracy for America have a new language and group to organize around, instead of defending the White House. Labor now has another horse to back, a motley energetic group calling itself the 99 percent, rather than a mild center-right Democratic elite class. Big-dollar liberal donors are excited to find a way to tap into this "energy." The occupiers are considered a new pole in the political system, "Krugman's army," perhaps.

Like a major national primary against a sitting-though-unpopular president, this movement is sending a signal to the existing elites. Change and deliver on a new social contract, or else. It isn't clear what "or else" means. Perhaps this is signifying a collapse of older institutional arrangements, or a breakdown in belief in existing authority structures. Perhaps this is the first of many large-scale civil disturbances, and a spark that will lead the establishment to solidify its authoritarian impulses. Maybe the training of tens of thousands of people around the world in nonviolent non-electoral means of challenging power, the legitimization of protest, the introduction of new areas of contention like the role of the Federal Reserve, and the re-mainstreaming of figures like Noam Chomsky and the promotion of people like Naomi Klein and Chris Hedges are signifying a larger shift in our political culture. It's too early to know.

But something big is afoot. "Culture-jammers" from the site Adbusters, a motley group of anarchists from a makeshift shantytown known as Bloombergville, imported tactics from Spain and Egypt, and yes, social media, have set the political establishment back on its heels.

Matt Stoller is the former senior policy adviser to Rep. Alan Grayson and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He blogs frequently for Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter at @matthewstoller.

You must log in to comment.

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Log in | Register

If you have a moment today, I hope you can read the obituary for my father Francis (Frank) Moore, who died this past Saturday at the age of 92: Francis...

Apr 22nd
6:33 PM
Read More

My father, Francis (Frank) Moore, passed away this morning a few months shy if his 93rd birthday. He was a great dad I am blessed to have had him in my life. I...

Apr 20th
2:58 AM
Read More

Time to put the cuffs on Chris Christie -- not for the bridge scandal, but for this: Chris Christie's $300m pension proposal broke state anti-corruption...

Apr 18th
7:31 PM
Read More

George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him... www.theonion.com President Bush has a new hobby -- painting! --...

Apr 17th
7:28 PM
Read More

Big new story from David Sirota and Pando on top Christie adviser and appearance of corruption at New Jersey's pension fund: REVEALED: Gov....

Apr 17th
12:41 PM
Read More

FBI Uncovers Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States www.theonion.com WASHINGTON—The FBI announced today that it has uncovered a...

Apr 15th
3:28 PM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel's top donor bought stock in Marriott just before it was awarded huge contract pando.com As schools are closed and pensions cut,...

Apr 9th
2:00 PM
Read More

I'll be at First Time Fest today in New York City at the screening of my first film, Roger & Me. Loews Village 7 at 12:30 pm. Come see it on the big...

Apr 5th
9:48 AM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel cuts public pensions, diverts money to benefit campaign donors pando.com If you've read the financial news out of Chicago the last...

Apr 4th
2:19 PM
Read More

Please take a moment today to think of Casey Austin Sheehan, son of Cindy and Patrick, who was murdered by U.S. foreign policy in Sadr City, Baghdad ten years...

Apr 4th
2:00 PM
Read More

ICYMI - I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence...

Apr 3rd
7:38 PM
Read More

I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention...

Apr 2nd
8:27 PM
Read More

I am opposed to the death penalty, but to every rule there is usually an exception, and in this case I hope the criminals at General Motors will be arrested...

Apr 1st
3:55 PM
Read More

How Long Some in the US Will Survive Under New Health Law ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com Those who must access care to live and can afford it are not...

Mar 31st
10:13 PM
Read More

Last night, The Good Wife on the East Coast started 40 minutes late due to the overrun of the NCAA basketball game. If you had your DVR set for the show, you...

Mar 24th
5:41 PM
Read More

Watching films today, looking for the ones I'm going to pick for my film festival this summer. I (and a whole bunch of others!) have this thing we put on...

Mar 23rd
4:48 PM
Read More

When the U.S. Health Care System Keeps Killing, Who Cares Enough to Fight? ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com We have largely forgotten that people are at...

Mar 21st
5:56 PM
Read More

Tell the White House not to give up on Dr. Vivek Murthy's nomination as Surgeon General despite the ferocious opposition from the NRA: Don't give...

Mar 21st
5:38 PM
Read More

This criminal would never see a jail cell, nor would his cronies. In fact, they'd later be rewarded with re-election: Presidential Address on War with...

Mar 19th
9:40 PM
Read More

The crime of the century -- our invasion & slaughter in Iraq -- started 11 years ago tonite in this 7pm (ET) hour, March 19th, 2003: CNN Coverage of...

Mar 19th
9:08 PM
Read More

Washington’s Back-to-the-Future Military Policies in Africa ...by Nick Turse www.michaelmoore.com Nick Turse is an award-winning journalist, historian,...

Mar 17th
4:59 PM
Read More

"I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world." -- Tony Benn, 1925-2014 Tony Benn in 'Sicko'

Mar 14th
10:07 AM
Read More

RIP Tony Benn, one of the UK's greatest leaders: Tony Benn, veteran Labour politician, dies aged 88 www.theguardian.com Former cabinet minister died at...

Mar 14th
9:53 AM
Read More

Please read this important story from K. Ford K.: Am I the Face of the New American Middle Class? www.huffingtonpost.com I began to feel I had slipped so low...

Mar 13th
2:24 PM
Read More

Yesterday Dianne Feinstein revealed that the CIA has been spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee. This is all about the report the committee has produced...

Mar 12th
6:48 PM
Read More

Health Care for All Colorado has brought Mercy Killers, a show written and performed by Michael Milligan about our murderous for-profit healthcare system, to...

Mar 10th
1:08 PM
Read More

Health Care Dramas that Sting and Why We Have to Watch ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com The realities Milligan has written into the show cut deep into...

Mar 10th
1:02 PM
Read More

Did you know the Lehrer Newshour on PBS has been produced for 20 years by a company owned by conservative cable billionaire John Malone? Me neither. After...

Mar 7th
8:39 PM
Read More

Mr. Obama, if int’l law is so damn crucial . . . | RootsAction.org act.rootsaction.org The Russian intervention deserves criticism. But let’s be clear. The...

Mar 6th
1:21 PM
Read More

Subscribe to Mike's Blog RSS

Click here to suggest an article

Mike's Blog

See More Blogs

Vew the archives

View older articles